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Two Heroes for Memorial Day

I am a day late but not a dollar short on today’s blog post (we have 1574 thanks to the start of Dollar Admission on Friday and a busy Memorial Day weekend!). Today’s post grew out of a convergence of many things and I had hoped to put it up yesterday but I was just too busy.

Several weeks ago, while working on devising talking points for the staff, I stumbled across some amazing images related to the President Hoover/President Coolidge model in our Ship Model gallery. The images are not only fantastic, they help relay a story of great sacrifice and courage worthy of remembering on Memorial Day.

Launching of the President Coolidge. Accession#: MS0155.02.02.10

The President Coolidge was a passenger steamship built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company in Newport News, Virginia, in 1931 for the Dollar Steamship Line. Our model was the first authorized (June 9, 1932) to be built at the Museum’s model shop and was completed on March 19, 1934.

Model of President Coolidge, 1934. Accession#: MD 2

The President Coolidge had a fairly typical history of an ocean liner in the 1930s and in 1938 when the Dollar Steamship Lines found itself in trouble the ship was transferred to the American President Lines. When World War II hit the ship was used by the War Shipping Administration to transport troops throughout the Pacific. On October 6, 1942 the President Coolidge left San Francisco and headed to Espiritu Santo with 5,340 troops mostly from the US Army 43rd Infantry Division.

In another one of those terrible US Navy lack of communication incidents, although it was presumably because of regulations at the time, the Navy did not warn the crew of the President Coolidge that the entrance to the harbor had been heavily fortified with sea mines. Fearing the same threat of Japanese submarine activity that had caused the Navy to lay the mines, the captain of the President Coolidge, Henry Nelson, tried to enter the harbor through what he presumed would be the safest course only to hit not one, but two mines.

The first mine exploded next to the ship’s engine room instantly killing Fireman Robert Reid. Seconds later, a second mine exploded near the ship’s stern. Captain Nelson immediately understood that the ship was in danger of sinking so he deliberately ran the President Coolidge aground in the shallowest water he could reach before the ship began to sink and gave the order to abandon ship.

Sinking of President Coolidge, Espiritu Santo. Accession#: PB16787

Over the next 90 minutes, all 5,340 men managed to escape the wreck and make it safely to shore. Some even managed to walk there! Amazingly, someone photographed the evacuation, which I find absolutely astounding, after all, these weren’t the days where you could whip out your cell phone! The guy that took these images had delicate equipment that had to be protected from the water during the evacuation and while in the lifeboat!

Sinking of President Coolidge, Espiritu Santo. Accession#: PB16786

During the evacuation, Captain Elwood J. Euart of the US Army Artillery Corps, who had safely gotten off the ship, learned that there were men in the infirmary who could not get out. Captain Euart voluntarily went back aboard through one of the sea doors and successfully rescued the men. While this was going on, the President Coolidge was taking on water and began listing onto her port side. Although Nelson had managed to get the ship to shallow water, it was sitting on the edge of a coral reef, so as the ship began listing, it also began sliding down the slope of the reef into the channel. Sadly, Captain Euart was so exhausted after his efforts to save the injured and sick men he was unable to escape the ship and went down with the ship.

Sinking of President Coolidge, Espiritu Santo. Accession#: PB16785

Yesterday, when asked to remember all of the men who served in the military, I particularly remembered the great personal sacrifice made by Elwood J. Euart and the efforts of Captain Nelson, whose skill and foresight saved 5,340 men from the sinking ship.

NOTE: My friend Dan reminded me that there was some closure for the Euart family as his remains were recovered from the wreck in 2016. Here is an article about it:

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